On 17 March 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to hold a “debate to mark International Women’s Day, on furthering and protecting the equality of women in the UK and internationally”.

International Women’s Day (IWD) occurs on 8 March each year. The aim of this global day is to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women across the world. It also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. The theme for the 2022 IWD campaign is #BreakTheBias.

A method used to show differences between women and men in certain areas is by determining the ‘gender gap’. The European Institute of Gender Equality defines a ‘gender gap’ as a gap in any area between women and men in terms of their levels of participation, access, rights, pay or benefits. Gender gaps are used globally to track progress towards gender parity.

Gender gaps across the world

The global gender gap between women and men has widened since 2020. International organisations have attributed this to the greater impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women than men.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) released its ‘Global Gender Gap Report 2021’ on 30 March 2021. The WEF has published the global gender gap index annually since 2006, using it to track progress towards gender parity. The index compares countries’ gender gaps across four areas: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment.

In the latest report, the index benchmarked 156 countries, measuring how close each country was to gender parity (ie the percentage of the gender gap that each country had closed). The results showed that the UK had closed 77.5% of its gap, ranking 23rd out of 156 countries. This put the UK behind countries such as Germany and France. The three countries that had closed the highest percentage of their gender gaps were Iceland (89.2%), Finland (86.1%), and Norway (84.9%). No country had achieved complete gender parity.

The WEF estimated that it would take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide if the current trajectory continued. On average, it said that the global gap had widened by almost 0.6 percentage points when compared to the 2020 index.

Table 1 shows the percentage of the gender gaps closed across the four areas in 2021:

Table 1: Percentage of the global gender gap closed to date, rounded, 2021

Global gender gap 68%
Educational attainment 95%
Health and survival 96%
Economic participation and opportunity 58%
Political empowerment 22%

Educational attainment

The gender gap for educational attainment (95%) was almost completely closed. The UK ranked 40th out of 156 countries in this area. However, the WEF said that global averages masked significant differences in certain countries. This included differences in access to education between women and men in countries such as Angola, where 88% of boys and 67% of girls were enrolled in primary school. The report said that development challenges in several countries impeded primary, secondary and higher educational attainment for both girls and boys, and more needed to be done to reduce gender gaps.

Health and survival

The gender gap for health and survival (96%) was almost completely closed. For health and survival, the WEF said all countries had closed at least 93% of their gap so far, with the UK ranked 110th out of 156 countries.

On life expectancy, most countries had achieved near gender parity. However, life expectancy gender gaps in countries such as Afghanistan and Qatar remained, with 97.3% and 95% of their gaps closed respectively.

Economic participation

The report showed that 58% of the global gender gap for economic participation and opportunity had closed, marking a slight improvement on the 2020 index. The UK ranked 55th out of 156 countries for this area.

The WEF attributed the “slow progress” made globally towards closing this gap to income disparities and a lack of women in leadership positions. It said that a limited presence of women in senior roles was evidence that a “glass ceiling” remained, even in advanced economies. For instance, it found that 42% of senior and managerial positions were held by women in the US, 36.8% in the UK, and 29% in Germany.

However, the report said that the data did not fully reflect the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that in certain countries gender gaps in labour force participation had widened since the pandemic began. As a result, the WEF predicted that the economic gender gap could be 1–4% wider than reported by the 2021 index.

Political empowerment

The global gender gap in political empowerment (measured by the ratio of women to men in ministerial and parliamentary positions) remained the largest of the four gaps, with only 22% closed. The WEF said that the gap had widened by 2.4 percentage points since the 2020 index. The UK ranked 23rd out of 156 countries for political empowerment.

Of the 35,500 parliamentary seats across 156 countries, 26.1% were held by women. Women were found to be under-represented in ministerial positions, with 22.6% of over 3,400 ministers worldwide being women. Nine countries, including Armenia and Thailand, were reported to have no female ministers. The report also showed that a limited number of women had served as heads of state in the past 50 years, with 81 of the 156 countries assessed never having had a woman in this position as at 15 January 2021. This included developed countries such as Sweden, Spain, and the US.

Impact of Covid-19 pandemic on women and girls

Evidence suggests that the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted women more severely than men.

Whilst evidence showed that both men and women were severely affected by the pandemic, the WEF report said there were several reasons why women were affected to a greater extent. This included women being more frequently employed in sectors directly disrupted by lockdown and social distancing measures, meaning that women experienced higher unemployment rates. The WEF also said an increased overlap of working and caring responsibilities was shown to have impacted women more than men. It noted that access to childcare continued to be an “important enabler of women’s ability to participate in the labour market on equal terms”.

In December 2021, UN Women published the ‘Women and Girls Left Behind: Glaring Gaps in Pandemic Responses’ report. This said the pandemic had compounded existing vulnerabilities faced by women and girls across the world and threatened to widen gender and socioeconomic inequalities. The report findings suggested an uneven pandemic impact on women when compared to men, including women being more likely than men to lose their job or reduce their paid work.

Following the UN Women report, the UK Government acknowledged that women and girls around the world were amongst the hardest hit by the indirect impacts of the pandemic. Vicky Ford, Parliamentary Under Secretary for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), said that the FCDO had been working with international partners to ensure that the needs of women and girls were central to the Government’s pandemic response. Amongst other things, she said the Government had supported over 40 countries to adapt their social protection systems in response to the pandemic. The minister said this had “integrated a focus on gender equality and social inclusion to support women disproportionately impacted by the crisis”.

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Cover image by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash.